This autumn in the Midwest, before the leaves come down, you've got to go up. Instead of just driving beneath chameleonic trees, take some time to get out of the car and climb high above the kaleidoscopic canopy. But where? Our list of historic fire towers and elevated overlooks in Minnesota and beyond will put you on a stairway to an endless expanse of eye-popping fall colors. Dodge the drought of 2021 by heading south and east as well as north, and check our predictions for the best times for color. (Hint: Go earlier this year.) No matter what, there's no reason to fear the fall at these 14 soaring spots.
Fall foliage predictions
Lutsen Mountains • Lutsen
The ski resort's Summit Express Gondola is a year-round North Shore must, even if you're not skiing. The futuristic transport ($18-$26) whisks passengers high above the wild Poplar River and up the steep face of Moose Mountain — where a chalet awaits with a sprawling multicolor vista, 1,000 feet above Lake Superior. From there, hikers can optionally find their way down to the Superior Hiking Trail for a two-hour forest immersion on the way back to the Lutsen base area.
Best time for fall colors in 2021: mid- to late September. (lutsen.com).
Oberg Mountain • Tofte
A few miles down the shore from Lutsen is another can't-miss pinnacle for autumn hikers. The three-mile Oberg loop trail is a spur of the Superior Hiking Trail (park at the lot on Onion River Road). The trail climbs sharply 300 feet to reveal an infinite expanse of Superior National Forest, with views of Gichi-Gami, Moose Mountain and teardrop-shaped Lake Oberg. The crowd-conscious can choose less-trafficked Leveaux Mountain Trail for a similar experience.
Best time for fall colors in 2021: mid- to late September. (exploreminnesota.com).
Enger Tower • Duluth
Fall colors blend with blue skies and the glitter of Lake Superior along Duluth's 25-mile Skyline Parkway, which ambles about 500 feet over the Great Lake shoreline while crossing numerous creeks and rivers. Check out the view from the 1939 Enger Tower, built of local stone on one of the city's highest viewpoints. You can also see the St. Louis River, Duluth Harbor and the Aerial Lift Bridge. Pack a meal and nab a picnic table (or just a flat rock) with a view.
Best time for colors in 2021: mid- to late September. (visitduluth.com).
Fire Tower Park • Pequot Lakes
This 100-foot, 1935 hilltop fire tower tucked into the woods rewards visitors with a vibrant 20-mile view of the Brainerd Lakes area. Back on the ground, trade the eagle-eye view for being flanked by colors along the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway that circles the Whitefish Chain of Lakes and returns to Pequot Lakes and its fishing-bobber water tower. Another solid option: Loop around Gull Lake and some of the area's most legendary resorts.
Best time for colors in 2021: late September. (explorebrainerdlakes.com).
Mille Lacs Kathio State Park • Onamia
Lake Mille Lacs shimmers on the horizon when you climb this park's 100-foot Observation Tower and gaze across flaming maples and basswoods. Leave time to learn about ancient burial mounds and evidence of villages dating back to 3000 B.C. Hike the trails to learn about a 1600s Dakota village near Ogechi Lake, look for the rich golds of tamarack or paddle the Rum River, which winds 154 miles from Mille Lacs to the Mississippi River.
Best time for colors in 2021: late September to early October. (dnr.state.mn.us).
St. Croix State Park • Hinckley
After the 100-foot climb up its public fire tower, the forests of Minnesota's largest state park unfurl into a carpet of deep green pines, orange and red maples and burnished oaks and golden aspen. St. Croix State Park sprawls across close to 34,000 acres along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border at the convergence of the Kettle and St. Croix rivers. Hike along the Kettle River Highbanks Trail or follow the St. Croix River bluff from the historic lodge to the Civilian Conservation Corps camp.
Best time for colors in 2021: late September. (dnr.state.mn.us).
Mount Tom, Sibley State Park • New London
Fall isn't just about trees. The bronzes and golds of prairie grasses and oak savanna blend with maples and basswoods at this park of rolling glacial hills north of Willmar. Head to Mount Tom, where a stone observation tower is one of the highest points within 50 miles. Part of the strenuous 3.3-mile Mount Tom loop trail may be under construction, but there's parking nearby.
Best time for colors in 2021: early to mid-October. (dnr.state.mn.us; 320-354-2055).
Barn Bluff • Red Wing
After a morning of antiquing in charming Red Wing (in "Goodhue" County, get it?), hike the city's most visible natural feature: the 340-foot Barn Bluff (aka He Mni Can), so named because, well, it's shaped like a barn. At the west end of the pitched "roof," there's a great look at the leafy town. But follow the ridge to the east end for a broad, colorful view of the Mississippi River valley where it widens into Lake Pepin.
Best time for colors in 2021: early to mid-October. (red-wing.org).
Elba Fire Tower • Elba
Northeast of Rochester, this 1933 fire tower rewards those who climb the 637 steps to its base with a two-mile view of the rolling Driftless Region and vibrant hardwood forests. Find more stellar views from blufftop trails at nearby Whitewater State Park. Climb up Chimney Rock Trail to see the Whitewater River wiggling below and birds riding thermals, or hike 1.2 miles to Inspiration Point for a remote overlook with no signs of civilization.
Best time for colors in 2021: early to mid-October. (dnr.state.mn.us).
Great River Bluffs State Park • Winona
Rising above the Great River Road as part of the Richard J. Dorer Hardwood Forest, this park's overlooks put visitors at eye level with waterfowl, eagles and songbirds, among the more than 100 avian species that inhabit the region or migrate along the Mississippi Flyway. Seek out remnants of rare blufftop goat prairie; camp beneath hickories, basswoods and maples; and catch a sunset eating local apples or sipping cider along King's Bluff Trail.
Best time for colors in 2021: early to mid-October. (dnr.state.mn.us).
These high spots in nearby Wisconsin and Michigan are also worth a climb.
Porcupine Mountains wilderness State Park • Ontonagon, Mich.
Five hours from the Twin Cities on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, this 60,000-acre park boasts at least two epic overlooks. At Summit Peak, it's a short hike to a 50-foot wooden tower that reveals a bowl of dense old-growth forest, with Lake Superior beyond. Then there's the iconic view of Lake of the Clouds, nestled between mountains in woods that explode in oranges, yellows and reds come fall.
Best time for fall colors in 2021: mid- to late September. (porcupineup.com).
Peninsula State Park • Fish Creek, Wis.
Views of Lake Michigan, golf, hiking, biking and a lighthouse draw campers and day-trippers to this Door County park. This fall also marks the return of Eagle Tower for sweeping views of Horseshoe Island in Green Bay and autumn foliage draping the historic town of Ephraim. The new 60-foot tower can accommodate 22 people on its deck — reached by stairs or a new accessible ramp.
Best time for colors in 2021: late September. (dnr.wisconsin.gov).
Devil's Lake State Park • Baraboo, Wis.
Ho-Chunk legends tell of a battle between thunderbirds and water spirits that created the ancient 500-foot bluffs surrounding Devil's Lake at the heart of Wisconsin's biggest, most visited state park. Park roads wind through tunnels of blazing red and sugar maples while hiking trails climb past rugged quartzite outcrops and landmarks such as Balanced Rock and Devil's Doorway on the way to dizzying panoramas.
Best time for colors in 2021: early to mid-October. (dnr.wisconsin.gov).
Holy Hill • Hubertus, Wis.
This neo-Romanesque basilica and national shrine is a destination for the devout and the secular that happens to have heavenly views. Climb the 178 steps of the hilltop basilica's Scenic Tower for 360 astonishing degrees of the Kettle Moraine region, characterized by forested glacial landforms such as kettles, kames and eskers. Hike the 435-acre wooded grounds (featuring a life-size Stations of the Cross) and feel the sense of peace wash over you.
Best time for colors in 2021: early to mid-October. (holyhill.com).
Lisa Meyers McClintick is a St. Cloud-based travel writer.
Simon Peter Groebner is the Star Tribune's travel editor.